Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Ukraine's Social Media Revolution
Maksym Savanevsky is founder of Watcher, which reports on internet business and social media marketing in Ukraine. He spoke to IWPR editor Daniella Peled about the critical role that social media are currently playing.
How did social media shape events before and during the revolution?
Social media played a crucial role in the Euromaidan protests. Beyond providing information on what was happening in Ukraine, they were a place where people could ask for help and organise actions. In fact, everything started due to a Facebook post by TV journalist Mustafa Nayem on November 21 in which he called on people to go to Maidan Square.
Social media were a powerful tool during the Euromaidan movement both for organising protests and exchanging information. Up to that point, there had been a lack of information for most Ukrainian people, because the authorities controlled most major radio, television and print news sources. The only way to learn the truth about [President Viktor] Yanukovich was through internet and social media.
Ukrainska Pravda became the most commonly used news site. In February, 2.5 million people visited the site on one day alone, and now it has around 1.5 million visitors daily. It is very independent and really popular.
Twitter also became very popular in Ukraine. Before November it wasn’t so widespread; just something for geeks or IT professionals. Now a lot of Ukrainians are using it, with about a million accounts as compared with 100,000 or 150,000 six months ago. Twitter became the third most popular route for traffic from social media to news sites, after Facebook at number one and VKontakte in second place.
Have social media sites faced censorship, or been used to spread misinformation?
Russia blocked some Ukrainian groups on VKontakte about a month ago, making them unavailable for people in Russia itself. VKontakte is very popular in Ukraine, the second most popular site after Google. But as far as political activity is concerned, most Euromaidan activists used Facebook.
Crimea gets its internet connection via Ukraine, so the Russian authorities can’t switch it off, although they are now building a cable from Russia so they can control the internet in Crimea.
Russia also tried to spread misinformation via social media, and it is still doing so. They paid bloggers and the owners of popular VKontakte groups to spread fake news, including stories about rising taxes in Ukraine and problems with the Kiev authorities. This happens on a daily basis. Ukrainians are aware of it, but sometimes false news plays a real role in changing people’s views.
But social media was just a tool that helped the people organise and spread the truth. The revolution was caused by the Yanukovich regime. If we hadn’t had social media, the revolution would still have happened, although maybe it would have taken three or six months longer. The situation was near to exploding. Social media helped it erupt more quickly.
Following the annexation of Crimea, how is the debate playing out across social media?
Most Ukrainians in the eastern and southern regions are pro-Ukraine. They see what happened in Crimea and don’t want that kind of trouble; they want stability.
Those groups of people who support Russia are in a minority and their number has decreased in the last two or three weeks because of Russia’s aggressive moves, and I think also because of the rising patriotic mood not only in central and western Ukraine but also in the east and south.
People want to help the Ukrainian soldiers, they are gathering money for them, and a lot of families are opening their doors to refugees from Crimea to provide them with food and accommodation. We haven’t had a huge problem with refugees yet but I think in the coming weeks, more and more people will leave Crimea because of the aggression of the Russian army.
What part are social media likely to play in the May presidential election?
Several hundred Ukrainian politicians have Twitter accounts, and in the last few months 20 or 30 of them have become very popular, with 20,000 or even 50,000 followers. Of the most popular Ukrainian Facebook pages, eight of them belong to politicians and two to journalists who cover politics.
Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is one of the most popular Twitter users. She first joined Twitter in early 2011, but stopped tweeting, obviously, after she was jailed in August year. She has started again in the last five days, and it looks like she will be announcing her candidacy for president this week.
Tymoshenko really understands how Twitter works, unlike some politicians here who have accounts and get their press officers to put some information out, which doesn’t really work.
Ukrainians are really interested in politics and it is very much part of life. People talk about it just as they talk about sport. Social media not only help politicians spread information but gives people an opportunity to communicate with them.
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